Barbie, Why Don’t I Look Like You?
a short story by Danica Seto
Dear Asian Youth,
Take a second and picture yourself back in the wondrous days of being a child, where your priority lies in which crayon to use on the scribbles that’s your most recent masterpiece. You're at the shopping mall trailing your parents turning the corner into the beloved toy aisle. Excitement bubbling, on your right you’ll find boxes of legos row after row packing the shelves, and to your left, the latest games coated in colorful packaging. A few more steps and you’re there. With a turn of your head, all that can be seen are boxes lined up in perfect view for your youthful eyes. A name catches your eye bright, beaming, and bold. Barbie. Under the encasing of thick layers of plastic, the signature pair of blue eyes, blond hair, and light skin look right back.
I’m well aware that on the list of national priorities to focus on, Barbie isn’t high up there. In fact, I don’t think she makes the list. Sorry Barbie! But when bringing up race and how it affects our lives, I want to address something no one really thinks about, or at least no one talks about, dolls.
I’m sure the majority of the people now grown up have at some point in their life had a doll. Whether it be the classic Barbie, overpriced American Girl, or some other one bought at the dollar store with a 6 year old throwing a fit attached, we’ve all either owned a few or seen them everywhere. Now think back to that doll and can you tell me what color her skin was? What about her hair or eyes? Let me take a wild shot in the dark, how about a white girl, with blonde or brown hair, and some fitting blue or green eyes that perfectly suit them. Chances are, I hit the mark and the doll you just imagined is the same one every young child in the U.S grew up with.
As an Asian-American girl, I walked down that same toy aisle most did, searching for a Barbie that would fit just right with the others in my dollhouse. Being only seven or eight at the time, when searching for a new doll I wasn’t so concerned with what she looked like anymore than the accessories she came with. Up until one day when I stopped to think and a curious thought came to mind, one I never cared to do much about then. I don’t look like her. My hair is black and pin-straight, a long way off from the golden waves. My eyes, a dark brown, commonly mistaken as black when I was younger. Most importantly, my East-Asian skin is a beige far from my white classmates. So as I looked at my pale Barbie who looked so beautiful, I had to wonder why she doesn’t reflect what I see in the mirror.
When we think of Barbie, one of, if not her most, memorable features is that she can be whatever she wants to be. Ranging from an astronaut headed to the moon, a scientist coming up with a hypothesis, to a computer programmer leading her way in the STEM field. We can’t help but credit her for inspiring generations of young girls to become whatever it is they aspired to be. She was a true role model and I don’t think it’d be far off to call her a feminist too. I want to make it clear the issues not in what she represents but in who she's representing. Young girls, but not Asian girls. Young girls, but not Indigenous girls. Young girls, but not Black girls. Young girls, but not all young girls. The point I’m trying to get at is, with the market for children’s toys so advancive, how are our children still playing with dolls that aren’t even close to resembling them? I wish I was exaggerating when I tell you that out of Mattel’s more than 170 different types of Barbies, there are only two Asian ones. Two dolls that I never saw and the majority of other Asian girls never saw. What does it mean for a country of all shades to be showing its children that only one is beautiful or only one can achieve success?
We talk a great deal about representation in the media nowadays which is a much needed step in the right direction. The lack of actors or shows starring BIPOC even today is astounding, and while we’re moving forward in most industries, the doll one is one most seem to forget. I presume because it’s something most nine years old or older aren’t particularly concerned with. Yet to genuinely embrace diversity and combat racism at an early age, representation targeting children is what’s needed more than ever. A child still learning how to write isn’t aware of the number of films with a BIPOC cast and to be frank, they wouldn’t care. Information regarding race and identity don’t mean much when presented in such an obscure and confusing way. Not that it isn’t crucial to be teaching children these things, but that it wouldn’t be close to effective. By making significantly more dolls that truthfully show what America looks like, it’d be much easier to understand broader concepts and answer questions that will eventually come. So when young children ask “Why does she speak differently than us?” or “Why doesn’t his family eat the same things we do?” we can comfortably do so in a safe environment. I’m not asking you to face multimillion dollar companies or go barging into factories, and it’s not realistic for anyone to want change without long-term solutions that will thoroughly address disparities beyond the days we’re screaming at the top of our lungs for it. What I will ask of you is to think about what you can personally do to grow after reading this. You might further educate yourself on the issues the movements left behind. Or it may just be observing that aisle with a different idea in mind and that’s ok. Normalizing diversity needs to happen at a young age and it needs to happen now.
With representation of minorities being a huge focus in the political/social justice world, I wanted to bring up a factor of representation most people forget about. Thinking about how dolls are one of the earliest ways we're introduced to the concept and impact of race is what I found interesting and wanted to explore. It brings up ideas like how we can create an easier understanding of concepts of race for children, or what role does representation have regarding covert racism? If we can connect race back to something as common as a doll, it's not far off to assume there are many more aspects of life that trace back to race as well.
My name is Danica Seto and I'm a high school freshman. I'm an Asian-American who ironically enough plays the violin and enjoys doing math. Besides the stereotypes, I'm also involved in programs helping my community and have an interest in social justice issues. My passion for spreading awareness and activism is why I write, to hopefully bridge some conversation on important topics and stir up change.